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5 Essential Element of an Inclusive Transgender Policy in the Workplace

Mar 15, 2015
Deb Muller


A few months ago, I published a blog on dealing with transgender inclusion in the workplace. You may have read it and thought — interesting, but not an issue in my organization. Well, as of this morning, you probably need to think again.

Through the wonderful world of social media, we were all introduced to Caitlyn (formerly known as Bruce) Jenner. And if you don’t think your employees aren’t looking, reading and discussing the news, you need to get out of your office and walk around a bit more. Today’s social media blasts reminded me that sometimes it is not just about policy and practices, but the examples we provide and how we lead.

In my organization, we took the opportunity to discuss why conversations about the photos or Jenner’s transition were not appropriate for the workplace. While everyone at HR Acuity® is very supportive of Jenner’s transition, having an open dialogue and sharing of opinions related to any protected category (and yes, I know that being transgender is actually not protected in all states, but let’s hope we get there soon) can lead to unintended exclusions and allegations of discrimination or harassment. Of course, we live and breathe employee relations at HR Acuity®.

What about your managers and supervisors? How did they handle the situation? Here’s a repost of the article. Perhaps it isn’t too early to consider how your organization is ensuring an inclusive work environment.

As company cultures evolve, diversity and inclusion have proven to be key differentiators for successful businesses. In a recent Forbes survey of 321 executives, Global Diversity and Inclusion: Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce, one of the key findings was that an inclusive, diverse workplace culture drives ideation and innovation. Another finding was that companies able to maintain a culture of diversity and inclusion attract the top talent. Both of these impacts go straight to a company’s bottom line.

The positive impact of an inclusive work environment makes it all the more important for companies to tackle any issues which accompany transgender employees in the workplace, and an excellent starting point is to explain the term, transgender. In just reading through various sources for the meaning of transgender, the definitions abound! For example, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines transgender as, “of or relating to people who have a sexual identity that is not clearly male or clearly female.” The Urban Dictionary defines transgender as, “A term referring to when one’s gender and sex are not always or ever equivalent.” Putting my human resources (HR) hat on, I would argue a transgender person is someone who is born a certain sex, has the corresponding physical anatomy of that sex, but identifies with the opposite sex or perhaps neither sex. For example, an individual may be born female, but identify as male, wear clothes more typical of a man or exhibit behavior more common to men.

While the definitions are a little ambiguous, the need for a thoughtful HR approach to transgender issues is not. Here are 5 essential elements of an inclusive transgender policy for the workplace:

1. Establish clear company guidelines prohibiting gender bias

As evidenced in my search for an adequate definition of transgender, employees may not understand some of the nuances of being transgender. Misconceptions about transgenderism can influence the behavior of co-workers towards individuals that identify as transgender. Companies should provide adequate education and training for all employees on the issues that surround gender in the workplace as well as enforce company policies against behavior that is discriminatory. Managers and co-workers cannot purposely or inadvertently create an environment that has an adverse employment impact on a transgender employee. Importantly, the company handbook should contain language making these policies clear, and the handbook needs to be distributed to employees.

2. Outline clear bathroom usage guidelines

An inclusive workplace is one that provides for the needs of all employees. Both a transgender employee and the co-workers of the transgender employee may be sensitive to the use of single sex bathrooms. Another wrinkle is that sometimes transgender people are transitioning towards their final gender identity and may wish to use bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex at first but change over to restrooms that correspond to their emerging gender identity later. If the company office space is able to accommodate gender neutral bathrooms, HR should work with management to designate gender neutral bathrooms which are available to all employees, not just transgender staff.

If gender neutral bathrooms are not an option, it is worth noting that there is legal precedent for transgender use of restroom facilities that corresponds to gender identity. In Cruzan v. Special School District, #1, a female teacher was denied her claim of sexual harassment when she contested the use of the female restrooms by a male teacher transitioning to a female identity.

3. Address transgender employees by their preferred name

Sometimes transgender people will change their name as they transition to their preferred gender identity. For example, a woman may change her name to a more common male name. While it may be awkward for co-workers that do not understand the change, HR can play an important role in establishing an environment wherein transgender employees are addressed the way they prefer. In conversation, co-workers should use pronouns that correspond to someone’s gender identity, and items such as office nameplates should indicate the preferred name as well.

4. Implement a gender neutral employee dress code

In some cases, companies have dress code requirements that differ for men and women. For example, at a restaurant, male waiters may be required to wear black pants and a white shirt while female employees are asked to wear a black skirt and white blouse. For a transitioning transgender employee, the switch between black pants and black skirt necessitates picking a juncture in the transition which can be awkward and make the person feel self-conscious. To this end, HR can help by defining a more gender neutral dress code, for example, “Employees should wear white tops and black bottoms,” not specifying gender specific articles of clothing.

5. Address workplace misconduct promptly

Most importantly, HR should address any misconduct in the workplace which targets transgender employees. As with other forms of discrimination, rigorous employee-related event protocols must be followed including a workplace investigation should accusations of gender bias surface. The investigation should be properly documented and the case file completed with supporting material. For a step-by-step guide to a defensible workplace investigation case file, see my recent infographic.

Working to create an inclusive workplace is a great example of how HR can partner with management and help to build a better business. The company will attract better people, enjoy an innovative and creative workplace environment, and the added bonus is that it’s even good for the business’ bottom line.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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